Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Humidifiers - The Good and The Bad

One of the hardest things to accept as a parent is conflicting evidence. It makes me question my decisions more on a daily basis than anything ever has in my life. Since having my daughter, doubt has settled in to my every decision from the most basic of life needs: sleeping, eating, bathing. If simple needs created such mixed advice than the first cold was going to send me in to a tailspin. However, that's why we have doctors right? What if the very same doctor's office recommends conflicting advice? Where does that leave me?

We felt horrendous when E got her first cold and was up all night coughing When I have a cough, I pop a cough drop and go back to sleep. When a baby has a cough there is nothing you can really do, besides feel incredibly helpless. So I called the all night nurse hot line that I'd made sure my doctor's office had. Their advice was to run a cool-mist humidifier all night. We did and felt grateful for the advice, but it didn't really do much to assuage her cough. We were still up all night long with very little comfort.

The next day we took her in to see her pediatrician. He asked us what we were doing to help her at home and I dutifully stated we were running our humidifier all night and keeping her propped up and full of fluids, but nothing really seemed to help. He immediately chastised me for even using a humidifier at all. I was shocked, replying that his nurse hot line recommended it. He told me they do more harm than good because they are a breeding ground for mold no matter how well you clean them. His advice was that there are too many tubes and parts that you can't get in to sterilize properly so don't bother with them at all.

Armed with such conflicting advice I needed answers. Was I in fact helping or hurting with my daughter with her harmless looking frog humidifier?

In searching for answers, I started by seeing what the American Association of Pediatrics had to say. I typed in "humidifiers" on their Parenting Corner and came up with two articles, both talking about the dangers humidifiers caused by mold. If not properly cleaned, humidifiers can lead to Legionnaires Disease which resembles pneumonia. In fact, any stagnant tap water has potential to create Legionnaires. More so in elderly, but in mild cases for children. Are they even useful to begin with? Never mind proper cleaning?

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends cleaning a humidifier every day. Honeywell, a major brand in humidifiers, list in their manual for a popular item that to clean a humidifier properly you need to use vinegar in the base for 20 min and then clean all interior parts with a brush. Finally you should rinse with water and a cleaning solution. I am not sure I want to deal with vinegar every day to clean a product I am not even entirely convinced actually helps to begin with. How many people are actually doing this even once, not to mention as often as needed?

I found a ton of sites giving suggestions on how to ease the symptoms of a common cold, and they almost always list using a humidifier, but I was having a hard time finding a study that shows why humidifier is a good idea. According to the NIH, the use of
a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer may help relieve an irritated throat and loosen mucus.
and the AAP confirms that
Placing a cool-mist humidifier (vaporizer) in your child’s room also will help keep nasal secretions more liquid and make her more comfortable.
This basic open access answer site says that you should
INCREASE HUMIDITY. It is important to let fresh air inside your room when you have common cold to increase humidity. Low humidity makes your mucus membrane dry and in effect worsens nasal congestion. If you cannot keep a window open, you need to have a humidifier. Just make sure to replace the water regularly and clean it every three days.
However, another site (about common cold myths) reports on a study that finds
the nasal mucus membrane is very resistant to the effects of low humidity. Volunteers placed in chambers where the humidity was dramatically lowered (9% relative humidity, such as found in a desert) still have normal clearance function of the nasal mucus membrane. Low humidity makes the nose feel dry but the mucus membrane still continues to work normally.
These same findings are also mentioned in a later study. From the point of view of the protective abilities of mucus, humidity seemed to have no effect.

Our personal experience was, that even with the use of the humidifier, she was up all night coughing and congested. Taking her in the bathroom and steaming it up seemed to more quickly and effectively make her comfortable, which in turn got us all more sleep. Why use a humidifier if I end up in a steamy bathroom anyway? Not that our humidifier was a high ticket item, but to have a $40 item that has the possibility to harm my child and doesn't really seem to work for us anyway, I immediately disposed of it and went straight back to using the shower which has worked well for us since. It seems the warm air must do more for her than the cool mist humidifier and since I can't use a warm mist humidifier due to the burn risks (as well as not wanting to harbor pesky bacteria) I will stick to the shower until she is old enough for other means of comfort.

Whether it is a cool-mist or warm-mist humidifier the consensus is it must be cleaned thoroughly and humidity levels monitored to avoid creating bacteria. What I did manage to find is that a humidifier may make one more comfortable by keeping the mucus flowing and that a properly humidified building can help keep illness at bay. There is a great article from FDA Consumer discussing this. At the end of day, always ask your own pediatrician as they have the most up to date information and may know more about the general humidity of the area. Of course, if a humidifier seems to work for your child please make sure to follow the manufacturers instructions on proper cleaning.

A cold sucks, we all suffer through them, but we as adults drown out the effects of the cold with Nyquil and Sudafed. They don't cure, but sure help make us feel better. The jury is still out on whether a humidifier actually has an effect. It has, however, been shown that it can be harmful if not properly cleaned, but hey researchers are proving chicken soup works! That's something we can do, right? :)

1 comment:

Julie said...

Wow, what a great article. I have that same frog humidifier!